The 2017 iGEM competition had over 5,000 student participants who all worked for months to design, build, and test their own synthetic biology projects. Once they’ve put all that work in, the teams travel from all over the world to Boston to present at the main event for the iGEM competition, the Giant Jamboree. I’d seen some of the competition when I helped give a talk for PLOS last year, but this year I got to attend the full iGEM Jamboree as a judge.
Before I ever got to judge, the iGEM team made sure we had plenty of information on how the judging should work. We had a conference call to answer questions, an in-person meeting before the competition started, a Slack workspace with other judges, and a 115 page handbook. While all of that information helped prepare me as a judge, all of the reading and talking about iGEM didn’t compare to the real thing.
My first impression of the Giant Jamboree was that there are a LOT of people piling into Hynes Convention Center. Some scientific conferences also have thousands of people, but the median age being at the undergrad level instead of postdoc certainly changes the energy buzzing in the conference hall. Most teams had a team shirt with there logo and often a science themed pun, but some went further to represent their team. There was a student dressed as a mantis (Modular ANtigen-based Test for Infectious diseaseS) and and another as the main character from Kill Bill (Kill Xyl).
Even though there are over 300 teams, I was only responsible for evaluating 11 of them. Most judges had workloads in the 9-12 team range so we had 5 to 6 judges per team presenting. As a new judge, that meant I was with other judges with more experience. The more experienced judges were great to ask questions about what to expect and to see how they thought teams compared to previous years. I met some people who have been involved since iGEM started and many who started as iGEM participants and have since graduated to become advisors or judges. One big takeaway in talking to people who have been around longer is how the iGEM competition has grown and the quality of projects has increased over the years. It’s still difficult to get a synthetic biology project working within a year, but there are now teams making good progress within one competition and many successfully improving upon projects from previous iGEM competitions.
Every speaking session had 2-3 teams present for 15 minutes followed by 5 minute questions. Then after a session there was typically a short informal meeting among the judges for that session to discuss. We could compare notes and make sure we were all clear on the medal requirements and different ways a team can qualify. The medal requirements were spelled out fairly explicitly and we were told to follow them strictly, so it was possible for a team to have a good project or presentation but still miss out on a particular bronze, silver, or gold medal if they didn’t follow the instructions.
Beyond just determining the medal qualifications, we had a series of multiple choice questions to fill out in the online system to aggregate team scores. There were a lot of areas to assess each team on including aspects of oral presentation, poster presentation, online wiki page, design, biobrick parts, outreach efforts, human practices, and more. The online system made it very easy to convert my notes on each time into scoring that could be aggregated and kept track of my progress as I filled out each team’s judging page. Our judging forms for each team also kept track of which awards a given team was eligible for so we didn’t have to keep track of it all. The only part that wasn’t multiple choice was the comments section where we were asked to leave both a positive comment and a constructive criticism. Of all of the the fields this took the most time because I wanted to make sure to be constructive and encourage the particularly well done parts of each project.
I had read through the wikis some before the competition, but seeing the focus of the oral presentations clarified the projects for me. Then I was able to better assess their work and ask more followup questions at the poster sessions. From my limited experience, the poster sessions seemed to be where more technical questions happened since there could be an extended back and forth. It was great to be able to talk to teams more then and hear about their general experience and excitement for synthetic biology.
Overall I really enjoyed my first experience as an iGEM judge and was very impressed with how much work so many students put into the competition. So congratulations to all of the teams! I hope to be able to judge again next year and see how the competition evolves.
Below are the results for the main prizes and you can also read about the big winners in a blog post from Twist Bioscience.
High School Section:
Team AshesiGhana from Ashesi University College in Ghana, Africa – for their efforts to address illegal gold mining in Ghana, one of the world’s leading producers of gold.
Team Georgia State from Georgia State University, USA – for their public engagement and outreach efforts to promote the accessibility of scientific communication to the deaf and hard of hearing.